Former entrepreneur helping small businesses navigate Calgary regulations

Calgary Chamber of Commerce says more change is still needed to boost city businesses

Sonya Sharp was hired as the City of Calgary's customer coordinator for small business last year.

When Carrie Korithoski was getting close to opening The O.T. Brewing Company this past summer, she was running into a bit of trouble finalizing her city paperwork.

“I was trying to get partial occupancy for our brewery because as you know, the brewing process takes a few weeks before it’s ready,” she said.

She wanted the beer ready when they opened their taproom, but she said her calls to 311 were providing her mixed instructions.

“I was talking with other breweries about how they had done it – another brewery had mentioned that they had worked with a lady named Sonya, and told me to give her a call,” said Korithoski.

Sonya Sharp has been helping small businesses get past their paperwork for almost a year and a half now.

The City of Calgary created the position of customer coordinator for small business because they wanted someone who could act as a middleman between businesses that were starting up and the city’s planning department.

As someone who was born into an entrepreneurial family, and who ended up marrying a business owner, Sharp said that experience helps her think like a business customer.

“In my personal life I’ve owned six businesses, up to the point where I got this position,” she said. “So I’ve had a lot of hands-on experience with small business.”

After more than a decade as a planning technician with Calgary, Sharp has jumped headfirst into a job that lets her help other small business owners navigate the steps needed to get their business up and running.

Korithoski said Sharp called her after hours, which she wasn’t expecting, and straightened the problem out right away.

“She knew what she was talking about and she knew exactly what needed to be done,” she said.

Sharp said her job is different every day. Sometimes she’s helping connect business owners with people in the planning department to resolve an issue. Other times she’s doing outreach work or community engagement to help a small business client.

Often she’s meeting small business owners on site and bringing along people from the planning department.

“In the end, we all want to see the business customer succeed. But it’s kind of changing that process and that mindset and the culture. So I’m looking at it from the outside in.”

Sharp has played a behind-the-scenes role in several programs designed to reduce red tape for small business owners, including the new online business application portal, and the inner city enterprise district, which made it easier for business to occupy vacant spaces in the downtown core.

That program eliminated the need for a development permit, although entrepreneurs still needed to get business permits and in some cases construction permits.

Zoe Addington, director of policy and government relations with the Calgary Chamber, said having a position at the city to help people navigate the system is good, but she feels the city still has a long way to go when it comes to changes to the system itself.

She said recently, the city was looking for feedback on its tax assessment appeals process.

“They wanted feedback from businesses on what it was like to go through it, and (…) we couldn’t actually find any businesses that interacted with it,” said Addington. “It was so complicated, they all used lawyers and agents to do it.”

Addington said since the economic downturn, there has been a need for a culture change at the city, which now needs to compete against outside jurisdictions like Rockyview County for business.

“I think Jeff Fielding, the city manager, has been instrumental in terms of highlighting this need for change,” she said. “He came from outside of Calgary, and he’s been making organizational changes. We’re now a city that’s going to have to compete for businesses.”

Without going into detail on what changes she would like to see, Sharp does say she and her colleagues are always looking for potential changes to make things flow more smoothly.

“We are constantly trying to meet the needs of our business community,” she said. “If that means new process changes or new bylaws, we’re doing what we can to accommodate our customers’ needs.”

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